Ford Park subsidy requests increase as county debates deficit

Ford Arena

If Jefferson County departments budget requests are fully funded this year, according to County Auditor Patrick Swain, the county is looking at a $4 million shortfall. Among the requests for increased funding are various capital improvement projects throughout the county, increases to cover healthcare premiums, and more than a half-million dollars in requested additions for the SMG-managed and county-owned Ford Park Entertainment Complex, which already loses more than $2 million annually.

Whether the county-subsidized entertainment venture will be awarded the funding requested remains to be seen; however, according to Swain, county commissioners will deliberate the proposals during August meetings to adopt a budget in September.

“Nothing is settled yet,” he said. “We still have a little time for that.” Still, according to Swain, at least a portion of SMG’s “wish list” for Ford Park additions has already been approved — $300,000 from county Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds green-lighted by the HOT committee. Those funds, he added, will not be attributed to Ford Park’s budget but instead go on the county ledger to pay for extending an already-existing concession stand at the baseball fields. Also committed to the facility separate from the budget is the $5.3 million annual debt service payment the county still foots toward the complex’s $117 million total price tag (including interest if payments are made until 2025).

What hasn’t been approved yet is $114,000 to cover point-of-sale software, $115,000 to cover new video boards and hardware on the complex’s marquee, $18,000 to fill a trench from the days when the facility housed a hockey team, more than $50,000 for lighting replacement, $90,000 for scoreboard repair, and $18,900 for an HVAC controller, among other proposed expenditures. “We’ll go through those items individually,” Swain said. “I don’t have any idea how much of that will get approved.”

Fuzzy math

Thumbing through SMG’s routine budget request for Ford Park shows expenditures that receive less review than the capital items on the “wish list,” but add up to to the more than $2 million shortfall from projected revenues in the coming year.

For example, according to the proposed Ford Park budget, the management company is allegedly paying more than 3 percent of its employees’ salary for workers’ compensation insurance. Private companies with similar salaries paid to employees average less than a quarter of 1 percent. Whether SMG really pays that much for workers’ compensation insurance is unclear.

According to Swain, budgeted funds awarded to Ford Park’s management team during the budget process are not tracked the same manner as regular county department budgets. For example, he said, if the District Clerk’s Office wanted to transfer funds from one budgeted function to another, the district clerk would need to get that approved by county commissioners. If Ford Park, under the direction of SMG, wants to use funds budgeted for one thing on another, there is no process in place to put that request to the elected officials.

So whether SMG really spends nearly $1,000 on affirmative actions booklets is of little importance – once the funds are approved for expenditure, they can be spent however management sees fit. Same goes for the $2,000 travel budget earmarked for SMG corporate employee Sam Voisin, who heads a publicly subsidized entertainment facility in Louisiana; $20,000 to replace light bulbs; $15,000 for plumbing repairs; $40,000 for HVAC repairs to go along with the $24,000 maintenance agreement for the HVAC system; $17,000 for kitchen equipment maintenance; etc.

In addition, although SMG is contracted to receive 2.5 percent of concession and catering sales, the numbers given for projected revenue do not match the anticipated payout to the management company. While SMG reports an anticipated $787,595 in concession and catering sales the coming year, it also projects $37,894 in proceeds for the management company’s 2.5 percent share of those proceeds – which, according to math, is about 4.8 percent.

Swain said that this year, so far, Ford Park has lost less than anticipated and will not be requiring the full requested subsidy approved for the soon-to-end fiscal year. The county estimates $400,000 in savings over what was originally awarded, although that amount of savings isn’t projected in the coming year, according to the budget proposed for next year. There is some savings noted over last year’s request, though, as last year the company sought $2.25 million in subsidy and only wants $2.05 million for next year.

County records show the subsidy paid annually as 2014, $1.9 million; 2013, $2.2 million; 2012, $1.7 million; $797,000 for 2011; $2 million in 2010; $2.4 million in 2009; and $2.8 million in 2008. 2015 is not yet audited.

Then there were two SMG is not assured of any budget request after this year as county commissioners have elected to seek a request for proposals to solicit a new management team to head Ford Park.

According to County Purchasing Agent Deborah Clark, two companies have submitted their numbers – SMG and Spectra.

Clark said that a review committee will be meeting to go over the material for review and score the proposals next week. Clark was hesitant to name the review committee members prior to its mission being accomplished for fear of community members trying to influence or agitate the volunteers, but Swain stated that he was one of the few who will be on the committee. According to Swain, several questions remain as to how to score the proposals, and he anticipates those questions will be answered as soon as the committee is complete (one member had yet to confirm as of press time) and gets together. One of the main questions surrounds the score given to the company that has “experience in the region,” as the “region” is not defined. The “quality of management team” is another yet undefined term, but Swain is confident the bugs will be ironed out without problem.

“These questions will be asked, and they’ll be answered,” he said. According to Clark, the team is expected to score the proposals by the end of next week. 

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